Economic Reforms to Include Pension Age Raise; Cap on Salaries; United Russia Primaries Marred by Fraud, ‘Carousels’

May 23, 2016
United Russia primaries in Kaliningrad, May 22, 2016. Photo by Vitaly Nevar/TASS

LIVE UPDATES: Nine million people voted in United Russia’s primaries, which were marred by ‘carousel’ voting, forced voting, beating of an observer, firing of whistleblowers, and withdrawal of candidates.

Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.

The previous issue is here.

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Hardliners Win and Lose in United Russia Primaries; Whistleblowers Against Fraud Dismissed, Beaten

As we reported, the ruling United Russia party held primaries over the weekends in which some 9 million people took part, and a number of hardline party leaders found themselves losing, according to TV Rain’s sources. Because of reports of fraud, United Russia may cancel the results of the primaries in some areas.
Russia recently began informally conducting “primaries” to see which candidates were more popular and help decide their ranking on party lists, which will determine the order in which they gain seats in parliament, if their party reaches the 5% threshold.
The “primaries” concept doesn’t work like the American system, despite the word praymeriz adopted in Russia, because there is no law, established procedure, or schedule governing the process; indeed, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev doesn’t think Russia needs a law on primaries because “not all the parties are ready for it,” he said.
In part that’s a reference to the expense and training involved in adapting a new system, but in part it’s about not letting rivals to the ruling party gain an advantage. 
The opposition parties were the first to conduct primaries among themselves weeks ago, which they found beset by dirty tricks from local administrations trying to keep them out or outright physical attacks and specious arrests. The Democratic Coalition also fell apart on the issue of whether Mikhail Kasyanov, head of the Parnas party, would himself be willing to submit to primaries after a scandal involving exposure of his private life on NTV. While he had committed no crime, some party members felt the shame of public humiliation over an extramarital affair with another party member would cost him votes. Kasyanov believed he should not accommodate a situation induced by Russian intelligence.

President Vladimir Putin himself urged United Russia to have primaries and to keep them honest. They were not honest, however. As Open Russia, the movement founded by exiled businessman and former political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, documented and as the independent media reported, there were accusations of “carousel” voting (multiple votes at different precincts); forced voting (threat against factory workers that they would lose their jobs if they did not participate in mandatory bus rides to vote); dismissal of a whistleblower (she refused to go along with fraud); and beating of a critic exposing fraud. And this was just the primaries.

An RBC reporter who registered to vote in Moscow was easily able to vote at a district in Lyubertsy, a district in the Moscow Region suburbs, simply by showing up — a phenomenon known as “carousel voting” because some United Russia or even administration officials take labor migrants, or factory workers, or retirees, or anyone else they can commandeer on bus trips around to multiple election precincts to cast votes in their favor. Sometimes the voters are paid a small sum for this favor.

An interesting result of even these rigged ballots, however is that some hardliners as well as party critics didn’t make the cut. Aleksandr Khinshtein, a United Russia member who has been critical of corruption among some provincial leaders, found that when he ran in a different district than the previous one, it still didn’t help him to overcome the bad press engineered by the target of his criticism, Gazeta and TV Rain reported.
Aleksandr Pushkov, head of the Duma’s committee on foreign affairs, placed on US and EU sanctions’ list for his role in the forcible annexation of the Crimea, lost the elections according to preliminary votes, said TV Rain.

According to Klub Regionov [Club of Regions], a Perm Territory publication, Pushkov got only eighth place in the primaries, not high enough to ensure him a seat. Valery Trapeznikov, another MP from Perm Territory who got 7th place, is also believed to be unable to gain a seat. Both deputies garnered only about 1,000 votes a piece, according to an Ekho Moskvy Perm source.

The Insider reported that Dmitry Skrivanov, a deputy of the local Perm legislature and a businessman, got 29,900 votes and Igor Sapko, mayor of Perm, came in second; third place was taken by another serving MP from Nizhny Novgorod Region, Aleksandr Vasilenko, representative of Lukoil. This suggests that “administrative resources,” i.e. the advantage of incumbents to access advertising and campaign budgets, may have had an effect locally while figures most active and visible in Moscow and abroad, even if running in this provincial district, may not have benefited from.

It’s not clear what the means yet as the final results will only be announced May 27.
United Russia solved the problem for Khinshtein by making him a deputy to the party leader Serge Neverov — that way he doesn’t need a seat in parliament to influence policy. Would he be placed on the party list due to that position anyway, ahead of those who won from votes in single-mandate districts or with positions on the party lists? That remains to be seen.
It is not known if a similar method could be used to keep Pushkov as head of the committee. Under Russian procedure, non-members of parliament can also be hired as consultants or aides to committee members.
Another hardliner who might not make the cut was Robert Shlegel, former press secretary and commissar of the nationalist movement Nashi, supported by the Kremlin at one time; he is a prolific commentator on Twitter. Both Pushkov and Shlegel have been recommended by their party to change the regions where they will campaign, a source in the Duma told RBK.
In Russia, you can get on the ballot without establishing residency in a region by getting a sufficient number of local signatures to a petition to be put on the ballot, a method that the late Boris Nemtsov, opposition leader, used to get elected in Sochi and later Yaroslavl.
But changing regions didn’t help Khinshtein. Public opinion is increasingly arrayed against United Russia as the visible symbol of economic failures and corruption in many regions and any United Russia candidate has that image to contend with.
Despite these setbacks, the system is more or less working for the Kremlin. Vitaly Milonov, the hardline local legislator in St. Petersburg notorious for his anti-gay campaigns and putting the Soldiers Mothers out of business in his town when they became critical of silence on the Ukraine war dead, handily won the St. Petersburg primaries, said TV Rain. Yuliya Mikhalkova of the comedy show “Ural Dumplings” won as did Vladimir Burmatov of Chelyabinsk.

Photo journalist Ilya Varlamov who traveled to Chelyabinsk recently has had fun posting pictures of old buses with a United Russia ad saying “Chelyabinsk – the Place You’ll Want to Live In!” that are rusting, out of order, or even being pushed by a group of people after stalling.

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2016-05-23 19:56:43

Another primary winner, according to Oleg Smolkin, head of United Russia’s Executive Committee, is Dmitry Sablin, head of Fighting Brotherhood and aide to former general and war veteran Boris Gromov whom we have covered for his role in not only the war in Ukraine but in supporting the Sever Battalion whose members are suspected of assassinating Nemtsov. Sergei Zheleznyak, who has proposed restrictions on the Internet won the primaries, as did Gennady Onishchenko, former head of Rospotrebnadzor, the consumer watchdog agency, who earned himself a page of his greatest quotes on Snob for his various conservative comments and malapropisms.

These included: 

“Hamburgers, even if they don’t have worms, are not the right choice of nutrition for the populatiom of Moscow and Russia. This food is not ours!”

Onishchenko blamed the reformist Tsar Peter the Great for a “300 year drunk” of the Russian people and said he was confident Russia would return to its “patriarchal” roots, and go back to reading the Domostroi (an ancient book of instruction for right living). But he gave up the fight against rodents, saying they were “older than humankind” and while humans were “still crawling on all fours” they had already become “corporate animals.”

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

President Vladimir Putin Re-Confirms Chaika as Prosecutor General of Russia; Navalny Accuses Him of Attack
President Vladimir Putin has re-confirmed Yury Chaika, the controversial prosecutor general of Russia, in his position, Kommersant reported. Andrei Klishas, head of the Federation Council’s Committee on Constitutional Law and State Construction, said he had a copy of the relevant document. 
“I will see the original soon. When I have the original, I will place it for review at the committee tomorrow,” Interfax quoted him as saying.
Klisas said his committee in the upper chamber of Russia’s parliament would recommend Chaika’s appointment, after which it would be put to a plenary vote. 
There, it will likely pass with little or no objection.

Chaika’s current term was due to expire June 22;  he has held the post since 2006. There was some speculation that he might retire, as he passed his 65th birthday on May 21.

Last December, anti-corruption campaign Alexey Navalany released a film about Chaika in which he said his two sons were involved in corrupt schemes but were protected by their father’s high position.

One provincial supporter of Navalny who organized a showing of the film saw his event cancelled and was then beaten.

Under Russian law, Chaika was obliged to declare his income, which he posted as 8.79 million rubles ($131,472). He also declared that he had a GAZ-13 automobile, known as a “Chaika” (the word means “seagull” and this style of car has been favored by Russian officials since the Soviet era). He has an apartment (203.6 square meters) and 2 parking spaces. His wife reported an income of 7.59 million rubles, joint ownership in the apartment, and a non-residential building of 175.3 square meters.

His two sons are not required to make public their income and assets. There has been some discussion in parliament about requiring such disclosures but there has not been any Kremlin support for it.

Chaika objected that the film was a “production by Bill Browder and the CIA,” referring to the CEO of Hermitage Capital and his campaign for justice for Sergei Magnitsky. Former Interior Ministry official Pavel Karpov, himself on the Magnitsky List, also invoked the supposed role of Western intelligence. While there is no evidence for the claim and the “proof” provided so far have been flimsy and laughable, Kremlin propagandists have continued to claim Browder and Navalny are backed by both the CIA and MI6.

Chaika also later claimed the Panama Papers were a project of Western intelligence. Even so, he said he would investigate the claims about Russian offshores by sending inquiries to Panama authorities. 

In his annual report, Chaika said crime had grown in Russia and cited the cases of 958 officials under criminal prosecution for corruption.

Meanwhile, reported that Navalny said in a blog post today that he believed Chaika had organized the attacks on him and his colleagues by Cossacks during a trip to Krasnodar.

Cossacks surrounded him and his team several times and beat some of them severely by the airport in Arapa.

Navalny says several sources in the region knowledgeable about the relationship between the Cossacks and government agencies said that Leonid Korzhinek, the prosecutor of Krasnodar Territory, could be behind the attacks. Korzhinek had reportedly protected Sergei Tsapkov during his reign of terror before he was sentenced for the murder of an entire family. 

“He organizes such things without a problem with a few phone calls and a few hints,” wrote Navalny.

Navalny also commented on Chaika’s reinstatement (translation by The Interpreter):

“This guarantees Putin the main quality in demand now in the country: loyalty. Chaika knows that he and his entire family and all his deputies can at any moment be put in jail (entirely justly!) for 20 years or so. And he is doing everything in order to deserve mercy and security.”

Navalny said he would file a request to investigate the prosecutor general’s office in both Moscow and Krasnodar regarding the attacks on him.

But if there is any follow up, it may be like the lackluster investigation begun after Navalny’s film — with those accused investigating themselves. 

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
War Correspondent Arkady Babchenko Fined, Barred from Foreign Travel
Arkady Babchenko, a long-time war correspondent who has covered the wars in Chechnya as well as Donbass, posted on his Facebook today, May 23, that he had been fined 58,287 rubles ($868) and was consequently barred from leaving the country until the fee was paid.
He said the fine came from the Vidnovsky City Court from a 2012 case about which he was not informed.
He joked that the government should collect the fee from $400 on an account frozen earlier during the first Chechen war as well as 30,000 ($447) he had donated to anti-corruption campaigner Alexey Navalny on the crowd-funding site Kiva which was blocked by Russia. 
Babchenko posted a copy of his Visa card transaction showing he had paid the fine, and now he was trying to figure out how to get information about what it was for and remove the travel ban.
As one of his followers noted, “The simplest way to close the border for undesirables is to create a fake decision or bailiff’s notice…So it’s exit visas as they were called in the USSR, that is, at the State Duma.”
In the Soviet era, all but the most privileged officials were barred from travel abroad and required exit visas, or authorization to travel, from government agencies. This restriction was dropped after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but has slowly crept back as various categories of people such as police are not allowed to go abroad. Those with investigations or trials pending are usually required to sign a pledge they will not leave town.

Babchenko has traveled to Ukraine to cover the war in the Donbass.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

Economic Reforms to Include Raise of Pension Age, Restriction of Salaries; United Russia Primaries: ‘Carousel’ Voting, Beatings, Forced Voting

The rate of the ruble to the dollar is 66.80 and to the euro at 75.10. The price of Brent crude is $48.30.

The following headlines were taken from 7:40 na Perrone, Currenttime TV, Interfax, Vedomosti, Kommersant, RBC, Novaya Gazeta, HRO, Open Russia 

– Vedomosti Learns Reform Economist Kudrin and Economy Minister Ulyukayev Plan Raising Pension Age, Restricting Consumption, Increasing Investment

What We’re Reading

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick